PGC's Q&A with Trina Davies

Playwrights Guild of Canada caught up with playwright, director and actor Trina Davies. She talks about the tremendous critical success of her play The Romeo Initiative, the grand historical settings behind her stories, the characters she creates and has fallen in love with, and what she is working on currently. 

1. The Romeo Initiative was nominated for the 2012 Governor General’s Drama Award. When you set out to writing the play, did you imagine that the script would capture so many people’s hearts? Did you face any challenges while writing the play?

Firstly, thank you for the compliment. I’ve been very touched by the response to the play. You can’t ever know how something is going to be received, you just have to launch into it, walk that tightrope without a net, and hope it turns out well. I had some inklings early on that the story was ‘hitting’. Just talking about the premise with friends over a drink created excitement and brought out peoples’ own stories. There were definitely challenges in the process. Early on I wrote a scene and many notes about what I thought the play would become. I got stalled out. I left the idea behind for a couple of years and worked on developing another play.

When I came back to Romeo it was because I realized that I had the wrong central character. That realization changed everything. After that the play started to come together much more easily. Also – a lot of the material that I wanted access to was only available in German. I was lucky enough to have a good friend, Christian Horn, in Germany who donated his own time to read some books and summarize the information I was looking for in English. I was also very fortunate to have access to Marianne Quoirin, a journalist who covered the trials of the women in Bonn. The BBC put me in contact with her and she was a great resource and very supportive throughout the process.

2. How did you come up with the idea, and why did you choose to base it in Cold War Germany? What questions does the play explore, and why do you think it is a topic that continues to have resonance today in Canada?

When my father was visiting in 2003 we caught the end of a documentary on TV one evening. They were interviewing a woman who had been in a relationship with a “Romeo” and she was going on about how all she wanted to know was if the man had really loved her. My father and I had very different reactions to this interview. He thought the woman was delusional. I could identify with her need to examine and revision a relationship that was important to her. The Romeo Initiative was an extreme example of the idea of being manipulated into love – how does a person know if he or she is loved? If a person experiences the feelings of love, does that mean it is “real”? Is it possible to create the illusion of a love relationship and feel nothing for the other person?

Setting the play in Cold War Germany kept it true to the original events. The setting provided a unique opportunity to explore the political landscape of a particular time and place – a divided country in which the population spoke the same language and historically had the same culture. Ultimately I believe a setting is just that: a backdrop that can provide the frame for containing a universal story. At its best, a setting/time/place brings out thematic elements in the story. The Romeo Initiative is about love; I think any person who has been in a love relationship and has asked the question “what just happened?” relates to the play.

3. The world premiere of the The Romeo Initiative was at the Enbridge playRites Festival of New Canadian Plays. What was that experience like? How was your play selected to be part of the festival? And what do you think about the importance of the festival to playwrights and their careers? 

Alberta Theatre Projects was a wonderful home from which to launch The Romeo Initiative. It was a very supportive and constructive environment. They had an obvious passion for the play, and were vocal about their support for my overall work as a playwright. It felt like a safe environment, which is the best thing you can ask for when going through the very vulnerable process of launching the world premiere of a new play. They followed through on every promise they made to myself and to the play throughout the entire development process. ATP had shortlisted my work for the festival in the past, and had asked to see any new work that I produced. I received the Enbridge Established Artist prize through ATP in 2008, based largely on the premise of The Romeo Initiative. As part of that award, they requested to read the first draft of the play. The play received one reading and one workshop/reading at ATP before it was chosen for the festival. Getting a Canadian play produced on a professional Canadian stage is a tough business. playRites remains one of the most important annual events for the launching of new Canadian work and for drawing attention to Canadian playwrights.

4. Most of your major recent plays, The Romeo Initiative, Shatter, and Waxworks for example, are historical stories. Why does the past capture your imagination so much?

That’s a good question. I’m not 100% sure that I can answer it. As I mentioned, I do believe a setting is just that: a background for a story. There is the idea that history repeats itself. In mining the past, it is possible to see a continuum in human behaviour – what is part of our nature? What are our strengths and weaknesses and how do we mitigate or exacerbate those? I have found a home in the settings that you mentioned for an exploration of contemporary ideas. Shatter is set in the Halifax Explosion of 1917; but I wrote it post 9-11 and my research included an examination of hate crimes in the U.S. both before and after that event. The Explosion became a backdrop for looking at racial profiling and how we deal with tragedy.

Waxworks is set in the French Revolution and looks at the life of Madame Tussaud. I wrote it at a time when the American  and Arab media were busy making people into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘terrorists’ and ‘heroes’. Madame Tussaud was required to do the same thing as she represented the populist media during her own time. The past has provided me with frameworks from which to examine our current situation.

5. You are currently working on a play called After the Fact for Citadel Playwrights Forum in Edmonton. What is the play about? 

As a charismatic leader is found in hiding and goes on trial for human rights abuses, a series of characters confront their new realities in the period following a war. The play will focus on the very personal stories of those affected by a centuries-old struggle and their attempts to move on with their lives as individuals and as a community. After the Fact will use details of the post-Bosnian conflict to explore the larger global picture of reconciliation.  The play will not examine war, but the aftermath of war. When the unimaginable has been made real, when neighbour has turned on neighbour, how is it possible to avoid creating a new cycle of violence and destruction? When stories creating divisions have been retold for six hundred years, how does a community create a new story? Through the personal stories, the play will dig into the foundations of nationalism and the culpability of leadership.

6. It explores themes of nationalism, power, justice, and fairness, which represent a departure from your previous work. What moved you into this direction? How are you carrying out your research and what new insights have you learned? What do you hope the audience members will take away from this play? And why Bosnia?

I actually don’t see it as a departure. This play is again reaching the political through the personal, which I am drawn to. The play started with a scene called The Apartment, which is about a Bosnian Muslim judge who returns to her apartment after spending time in a concentration camp to find her secretary living in her apartment, using her grandmother’s coffee set and wearing her clothes. It is based on a true story. The scene was produced at FemFest (Winnipeg), at Women in Play(s) III (Vancouver) and the 2011 Vancouver International Fringe Festival. The scene resonated with people, and Amnesty International supported two of the productions and provided presentations and talk-backs at them. I wrote the scene a few years ago. Over the years since I’ve been noting other stories and bits and pieces of things that have started to gel together. I cast my net wide when I’m researching something new. A sample of the things I’m current reading includes: the social psychology of war and peace, art books from Bosnia depicting pop art and graffiti during the war, and trial transcripts from the Hague.

As I’m still deep in the process of developing this play, I don’t feel like I can fully articulate any insights or what audiences should be taking away from it. The Apartment scene being in Bosnia really set me on this path. Bosnia was a brutal civil conflict, pitting neighbour against neighbour. Unfortunately there have been, and continue to be, many of these conflicts. Like some of my other plays, Bosnia is a rich setting for the concepts that I want explore. I’ll know more after the first public reading at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton in late June…

7. How did you come to playwriting? How has your writing changed over the years?

I came to writing theatre through acting. I started acting quite young. Specifically I started acting in new Canadian work, which exposed me to the new play development process. Developing a new play was normal to me, working with an established script was an experience I was less familiar with. I also started writing quite young. I had moderate success as a poet. When people I was working with in theatre found out that I wrote, they encouraged me to write for the stage. It took me several years before I finally wrote a play, in the meantime I continued to work on the development of others’ new work. That experience was very valuable. I don’t know that my process has changed greatly. I suspect that I trust my own instincts more, which is really important.

8. What is your writing process like? Do you stick to a schedule or write when the inspiration strikes?

I’m beginning to realize that my process might be quite different from a lot of other playwrights. Typically I have a notebook for each play that I’m working on. Over a period of time, usually years, I jot down ideas, lines, images that occur to me. I do a lot of reading. I expose myself to a lot of other art forms in the same general area of what I’m thinking about: paintings, photography, movies, novels, non-fiction, etc.

At some point I get the feeling that I’ve done as much as I can notebook-wise, and I sit down to write first draft. I will often write a first draft in a concentrated period of time. I have written first drafts in 24 hours, in 48 hours, in four days…it really depends on how it comes together. The first draft is probably the most painful part, but once it’s written, it is a great relief. Then the process of crafting, rewriting and workshopping really begins – the work of refining and of getting it off of the page and onto the stage.

9. Out of all the plays that you have written, who is your favourite character? How come? Are there any characters you disliked?

That’s a difficult question. On some level I think I love them all. We had a brief discussion at the Citadel Playwrights Forum last November about villainous characters. My take on them is that you have to know them, you have to be able to walk around in their skin and see with their eyes. If you’re not willing to do that, you don’t have a human being, you have a stock character that is easily dismissed by the audience. I have soft spots for Marie Grosholz (Madame Tussaud, Waxworks), both Karin and Lena (Romeo Initiative) and Elsie (Shatter). I also love the perhaps less obviously lovable – Robespierre (Waxworks) and Markus (Romeo Initiative). I’m currently quite in love with the awful, charismatic Leader in After the Fact.

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Trina Davies is a writer, director and actor. Trina’s award-winning plays include Multi User Dungeon (Alberta Playwrights Network Discovery Award 2000), Shatter (Alberta Theatre Projects 24 hr Playwriting Competition 2003, Short List for International Prism Residency Prize 2003, Short List for New Works of Merit 13th Street Repertory Theatre NYC 2004, Short List for International Dramatic Literature Prize Media Arts Literature and Sound San Francisco), The Auction (Alberta Writer’s Guild Short Play Award 2002), and Waxworks (Alberta Playwrights Network Award 2007). Her play The Romeo Initiative was nominated for the Governor General's Drama Award. Her plays have been read and/or performed at the Globe Theatre (Regina); Theatre Network (Edmonton); Citadel Theatre (Edmonton); Workshop West Theatre (Edmonton); Edmonton International Fringe Festival; Alberta Theatre Projects (Calgary); Enbridge playRites Festival (Calgary); Ship’s Company (Parrsboro, Nova Scotia); Dancing Sky Theatre (Sask), Playwrights Theatre Centre (Vancouver); and CanStage (Toronto).

She is currently a member of the Alberta Playwrights Network, the Playwrights Theatre Centre and the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Trina lives in Vancouver.

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